A Brief Treatise on Inspiration, Infallability, and Inerrancy
At the outset it’s necessary to define some terms that are are thrown around rather loosely in Christian circles, such as “inspiration,” “inerrancy,” and “infallability,” and zero in more precisely what they mean. As is well known, 2 Timothy 3:16 tells us that “all Scripture is inspired by God [literally, “God-breathed”].” The term “inspired” more precisely connotes expiration rather than inspiration, since the source of Scripture is God and he “breathed out,” as it were, the content of Scripture. The mode by which he chose to communicate was, of course, human agency, but without displacing the writer’s peculiar style, background, personality, et al. In so far as copies were faithfully reproduced from the original manuscripts, truthfulness and accuracy was preserved in the text. Of those small number of passages where words, phrases, and syntactical concerns are in question, none have to do with the essential message or meaning as originally intended. Most often when Christians disagree on meaning, it is due to a a theological grid not shared or simply a blatant misunderstanding. Put differently, the disagreement is not in the text, but in us.
Infallibility states that the Bible cannot err, while inerrancy simply means that the Bible does not err. These two doctrines are logically dependent upon one another. That is if the Bible cannot err, then it does not err. If A is true, and B is logically dependent upon A, then when A obtains, B follows as a necessary entailment.
The import of these doctrines (inspiration, infallibility, and inerrancy) is that they apply only to the original manuscripts and not to translations that we have today. However, it must be asserted (and it is logically necessary) that when our translations faithfully communicate what the original text contained, then God’s truth is accurately conveyed. Consequently, responsible translations in use today are authoritative for our lives.
On a practical/historical note: Due to the perishable materials available in their time of writing, all ancient manuscripts were subject to decay. Knowing this, the practice of document transmission via manual copying was a common and precise task amongst scribes in the Hebrew and Greco-Roman culture. However, it is wrong to assume that since copies are made and years divide the original piece of work from its copied source, that there are necessarily errors and that those copies cannot be trusted as reliable. If, for example, your mother wrote you a letter and you chose to hand-copy it and send the copied letter to your brother, and you subsequently lost the original, there is no reason for your brother to assume that the content of the copied letter is imprecise nor ridden with error (given your credibility, which the doctrine of inspiration as defined above takes care of, since it is presumed that God’s credibility is impeccable).
Modern translations are the product of extremely reliable texts that date back to as early as 125 A.D. (a parchment of John 18 dating back to this time still exists on display at University of Manchester, England). We have more than 5,300 copies or pieces of New Testament documents and scholars poor over these copies for years before creating a translation. What is amazing is the fact that the differences are slight and miniscule. The oldest complete manuscript of the Old Testament (Codex Leningradensis) dates from 1006 A.D. However, when this text is compared with like texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls (dating from about 150 B.C. to 100 A.D.) there is essentially little difference. This demonstrates the reliability of multiple copies over more than 1000 years of transmission! Of those differences that do exist (spelling, grammar), there are no concerns over the meaning of the text. Hence, God’s Word is kept in tact. To the best of my knowledge, there is no finer work on historical reliability of Scripture than F. F. Bruce’s The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?
As for multiple translations: It is simply a fact that no language can be exactly translated to another. And, due to semantics (the way in which language evolves through usage) it is necessary to freshly translate Scripture for each new generation so as to convey God’s Word to the world. Personally, I recommend using multiple translations. For the new believer, The New Living Translation is excellent and faithful to the original intent. The 2011 New International Version is my preference. For study, The New American Standard (updated), The Revised Standard, and The English Standard Version are the most literal (word-for-word) translations available to date.
Finally, virtually every translation will have a preface that explains how the translation came about and everyone is encouraged to read that carefully to understand the philosophy of the translators. At the end of the day, every Christian can be sure that what Scripture says God says.
Incidently, for an introduction to the New Testatment as we have it today, read “The Canon of the New Testament: A Brief Introduction“. To read a well-written and widely affirmed statement on inerrancy, see the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.